Informal settlements should actively participate in local government

COMMENT

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into question the future direction in local government systems and practices. Specifically, it has presented an opportunity to reassess the participation of vulnerable communities in local government decision-making. Undoubtedly, poor participation of certain groups or communities in decision-making leads to a disconnect between the services provided and needs of people. 

This new focus evokes the imperative for considering alternative mechanisms of participation to complement the traditional local government processes, such as integrated development planning and municipal budgeting. Within this larger need for fundamental change sits poor service delivery — water, electricity, sanitation and waste management — in informal settlements. 

It is generally agreed that local government has the mandate to bring the government closer to people, deliver services in an equitable and efficient manner and meet the needs of citizens. This suggests greater inclusion of marginalised groups in decision-making and in accessing quality services, but reality shows a different picture. Professor Marie Huchzermeyer’s research on informal settlements and the right to the city unveils the discrepancy in services.  

Similarly, the United Nations’ report on the 2018 Review of SDGs implementation reveals that Goal 11 which prioritises inclusivity, safety and sustainability, is still not realised. Not to mention Indicator 11.3 which  seeks to enhance inclusivity and participatory planning by 2030. The report underlines that many regions still struggle to improve public participation mechanisms (it applies to local government) and that so far only Eastern and South-Eastern Asia show real improvement, followed by Australia. Of course, other regions such as Europe and North America are also considered to have fared better.  

Despite the fact that there is scant evidence showing the extent to which African citizens influence policy decisions, many studies reveal poor participation of citizens. Professor Steven Friedman shines light on this discrepancy in his book Power in action: democracy, citizenship and social justice. He observes that only few people collectively influence decision-making hence, “elites create the state in their image, making it serve their own needs”. This suggests exclusion of vulnerable people and highlights the need to improve participation mechanisms and give a voice to those whose plight is currently heightened by Covid-19. 


In South Africa, local government has generally been labelled as weak and inefficient, despite progressive policy and legislative framework, such as the Constitution and the Local Government Municipal Systems Act 2003, informing public participation. Many researchers have revealed the disjuncture between progressive policies, processes and their implementation. For instance Alison Todes and others in their publication Including women? Disjuncture between voice, policy and implementation in integrated planning assert that integrated development plans (IDPs) have not necessarily served as an effective space for marginalised groups to meaningfully participate in formulating plans and influencing development practice.

Planact, a non-profit organisation promoting inclusive local governance processes, has witnessed institutionalised spaces of engagement as ineffective or poorly utilised. A recent study further reveals the gap in community participation.  Consequently, all too often residents have reverted to protests to amplify their voice regarding services they need. Municipal IQ which offers municipal assessments observes that there were 218 recorded service delivery protests across South African municipalities in 2018. These protests are often characterised by violent behaviour stemming from the exclusion from local government decisions.

It can be argued that the ongoing exclusion in decision-making has contributed to the present urgency for access to basic services, such as water and sanitation — residents in informal settlements struggle  to adhere to the health measures, such as frequent hand washing, necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Furthermore, high-population densities and sharing of facilities by multiple households render physical distancing impossible and increase residents’ risk of exposure to contaminated surfaces. These challenges make rethinking of local government participation mechanisms even more pressing. 

The recent speech by President Cyril Ramaphosa provides a pointer to the government’s willingness to embrace systemic change in the near future: “Our new economy must be founded on fairness, empowerment, justice and equality. It must use every resource, every capability and every innovation — service of the people of this country.” This is a positive statement and Planact considers the call an important one for all spheres of government and civil society. Reimagined participation mechanisms are integral to that change.

How can participation in local government be improved?

Planact advocates selected alternatives municipalities can adopt to improve the participation of informal settlements in local government.

First, supporting informal settlement clusters to participate in local governance processes. This could amplify their voices and reduce the elite’s dominance in decision-making processes. 

Second, supporting the creation of neutral spaces/alternative spaces where the clusters and other movements can communicate with the municipality. This could complement the quick consultations conducted during IDP/municipal budgeting processes which least benefit vulnerable communities. As asserted by institutional theorists, such as Douglass North, informal rules should be supported to engender formal institutions. 

Third, providing elaborative feedback sessions with informal settlement clusters at different intervals of a year. The current feedback on the coronavirus situation provided by the government points to the feasibility and significant role of feedback sessions in governance.

Fourth, recognising and institutionalising social audits to establish relationships between service delivery and resources meanwhile also promoting the monitoring of service providers by communities. 

The monitoring of basic services by residents of informal settlements, the Asivikelane Initiative, demonstrates this aspect.

Lastly, strengthening public awareness campaigns  using media that includes community radio stations to encourage the inclusion of disadvantaged communities. 

What does systemic change mean for civil society organisations?

Currently, the government is speaking to civil society organisations to help them address the problems faced by informal settlements during this pandemic. Although the focus is mainly on pressing issues, this has paved the way to strategically influence future actions. Planact is cognisant that systemic change regarding participation mechanisms at local government level will require strategic advocacy through targeted interventions. A pressing question that cannot be ignored is whether the various government departments and municipalities will retain the current momentum in addressing service delivery issues and collaboration with civil society organisations post-Covid-19? 

Non-governmental organisations therefore will need to carefully strategise their interventions aimed at bolstering the government’s response to the issues beyond this period. A coalition of non-governmental organisations and stakeholders needs to capitalise on the government’s current willingness to embrace systemic change as reflected in the president’s statement. To this end, NGOs need to re-engineer their advocacy approach for the Post-Covid 19 era, while also looking inward and solidifying collaborative interventions. 

A first critical move would be the discarding of the silo approach, which has a long track record of failing to catalyse significant systemic change.

The active involvement of all stakeholders is critical for shifting the stifling systems that continue to exclude vulnerable communities. If grasped, systemic change in the post-Covid-19 era could benefit the majority of residents in informal settlements in South Africa, thus resulting in the country becoming a cynosure for best public-participation practices. 

Dr Hloniphile Simelane is a development practitioner at Planact. She is also a visiting researcher at the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Architecture and Planning

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Hloniphile Simelane
Dr Hloniphile Simelane is a development practitioner at Planact, a non-governmental organisation promoting inclusive local governance processes. She also serves as a visiting researcher at the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Architecture and Planning. Her interdisciplinary research focuses primarily on Africa and is concerned with sustainable development, land tenure, informal settlements, gender and local government

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